Ben Walker talking about being an effective leader

I’ll admit it, I’m fairly new to this whole leadership thing. Over the past three years, I’ve had to quickly adjust to running a business; teaching the bulk of our cleaning management classes; performing the bulk of my company’s on-site consulting and auditing work; making tough decisions about where we’re going; firing people; hiring people; and falling flat on my face more than a handful of times.

It hasn’t always been pretty, but it has been educational and that is usually enough to keep me going. It’s also why I found myself in a highly respected leadership psychologist’s office about four months ago.

In my experience, it’s tough to find many turnkey solutions for becoming an effective leader, which is why this has been such a rewarding experience. It’s also why I’m going to share some of what I’ve learned so far.

“What’s your leadership vision?” That’s the first question I was asked — after going through the initial intake of the usual medical history, daddy issues, fears, strengths and formative childhood experiences.

The question caught me flat-footed. “What’s your leadership vision?” I had no clue what it was or how to answer. Finally, I surrendered and asked for an explanation. This led to one of the most valuable exercises I’ve had in my adult life — defining the vision for my future.

Below are two very important exercises, albeit abbreviated, that I spent the next eight weeks working through.

Defining Leadership

What’s your definition of leadership? My first definition was a bit literal: “someone who has followers.” But that evolved greatly over the weeks. While I wasn’t totally off-the-mark in my answer, it lacked eloquence.

It’s important to ask yourself what inspires people to follow. Specifically, what is it about you that inspires people to follow? It could be anything from the ability to gain trust, the ability to speak publicly or the ability to diffuse volatile situations.
One thing budding leaders need to keep in mind is that the word “leader” is often misaligned with the word “hero.” In fact, many of my initial attempts at defining leadership were tinged with hero language.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to be a hero. The important distinction is whether your purpose is self-serving or selfless, which is why the next part is so important.

Leadership Intention

Once you have defined leadership for yourself, you need to decide how it will be applied. One of the key pieces that I took away from this exercise is that there is a spectrum of intentions ranging from evil (the word used by my counselor) to neutral to altruistic.

Many people, I learned, tend to err on the side of caution and let themselves be guided by neutral intentions. My counselor cleverly referred to this as intention inaction — I certainly have fallen into this category.

The problem with the neutral range is that the “what” is very clearly defined, but is either too vague, too lofty or too simple to make actionable. Ultimately, the intention suffers and folks who choose to act as neutral leaders get stuck in a directionless cycle. Their followers tend to stop valuing their leader because of the inconsistency. In their quest to become a hero to all, neutral leaders have put their need for affirmation ahead of the needs of the people they rely on.

The best leadership intentions, I learned, are the ones that embrace empathy for the people who are following and for the people in the world we are trying to help. Begin developing every intention by asking yourself, “Who am I helping?” and “Who will benefit?” If the answer points back to you, start over and work through it until it doesn’t anymore. 
Ben Walker is the Director of Business Development for ManageMen, Inc., a leading cleaning industry consultancy specializing in training, transitions, auditing and educational materials. In addition to his consulting work, Walker is the author of ISSA’s best selling book: 612 Cleaning Times and Tasks.